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Life Itself by Roger Ebert

Life Itself

Life Itself is well written but incomplete. Not really a memoir or autobiography but a collection of memories. I’ve often thought that writing a biography where each chapter is on a different topic would be a valid way to cover one’s life. If there are enough of them, they create a portrait of the author just as complete as if he had written a chronological account of his life. My complaint about his book is Ebert doesn’t cover enough topics to give us a full portrait. This one is rather hazy. Ebert lived a fascinating life but in some ways it was like everyman. The first third of the book deals with his childhood in Urban, IL. The second third deals with his interactions with favorite places and people. The final third is very philosophical dealing with his cancer, his (lack of) faith, politics, and his mortality.

427 pages

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Helen Of Troy by Margaret George

Helen Of Troy

I have long been a fan of Margaret George, enjoying her works of historical fiction including Mary Called Magdalene and The Autobiography of Henry VIII.  In Helen of Troy, she tackles the life of a possible mythical personality.  Did Helen of Troy actually exist?  We really don’t know the answer to that question.  Much has been written about the “face that launched a thousand ships,” but we know more about events that surrounded the supposed Trojan War, than we know about Helen herself.

Wrapped in Greek mythology, Margaret George set a large task for herself.  Who was Helen? And how to incorporate the mythological side of her story?  Since the stories surrounding the Trojan War were larger than life, George had to try to create a realistic portrayal of Helen as a woman, which was difficult, to say the least.  I never did feel that drawn to her character.  She didn’t evoke any feeling in me, the reader, but I did enjoy hearing George’s version of the events surrounding Helen’s fateful decision to leave her husband Menelaus and enter into a relationship with the Trojan prince, Paris.

I’m not sure if the fault was Ms. George’s.  I did not connect with the characters in Song of Achilles, either.  Perhaps it is too distant and the story is too detached from our own humanity.  Unfortunately, it made this novel a little lackluster for me.

3 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2006
611 pages

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Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, Chef

This autobiography was recommended by a friend, and since I love “foodie” books, I knew I would like this one.  I admit I hadn’t heard of Marcus Samuellson before – he was an award-winning chef of Aquavit in New York, had done some television, and had the honor of preparing the Obamas’ first State Dinner at the White House.

His story is fascinating.  Born in Ethiopia, he and his sister were adopted by a Swedish couple and raised as a Scandinavian.  He grew to love cooking and food due to the influence of his Swedish grandmother, and attended culinary school in Sweden.  From there, Samuelsson’s rise to the top of the culinary world was a combination of hard work & creativity, personal recommendations, and being at the right place at the right time.  In fact, he was lucky to have a deep knowledge of Swedish cooking, because without it, we probably would never had heard of him.  That knowledge got his foot in the door of a famed NYC restaurant – and we learn through Samuelsson, that it is nearly impossible to gain entry into that world (doubly impossible is you are a black man, like Samuelsson).

I very much enjoyed reading about Samuelsson’s journey, and recommend it for anyone interested the world of fine cuisine.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2012
319 pages

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My Life In France by Julia Child

My Life In France

I read this memoir on the heels of reading Julie & Julia, and it was a very pleasant departure from the former.  In this last book of Julia Child’s before her death, she recounts her life from the early days of her marriage to Paul Child, mostly encompassing her time spent in France following the end of the second World War.

Not only was this memoir fascinating, but Alex Prud’homme (Paul Child’s grand-nephew) did a wonderful job as co-writer, capturing the fun-loving and enthusiastic personality of the queen of French cooking. (Or cookery, as Julia Child would call it).

This  book was such a pleasure to read!  I felt as if I was experiencing the beauty of France – the scenery, the people and the food – right along with Julia Child.  In addition, understanding Paul Child’s work in helping post-war Europe and the lives of Europeans at the time gives the reader a fascinating peek into a side of history that is often forgotten.  We read about the seriousness of the Russian threat, the ineptness of large bureaucracies, and how people are basically the same throughout time, but of course must play the hand they are dealt.

But best of all, is Julia’s introduction to the wonderful food of France.  It is amazing to learn that she grew up in a family where the women were not expected to cook, so Mrs. Child went into her marriage with few culinary skills.  The idea of learning French cooking came about because of her husband’s passion for the cuisine and her desire to please him.  I loved how supportive Paul Child became as his wife’s interest grew into more than just trying a few recipes from a cookbook.  He supported her from the early stages of cooking classes, to writing a cookbook, and beyond into the world of television.  Their marriage was as much a joy to read about as was Julia’s love for cooking.

What a wonderful way to celebrate love, good food, and a life well-lived.

5 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2006
317 pages

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The Sisterhood by Helen Bryan

The Sisterhood

I didn’t know what to expect when I started to read this novel.  The story seemed to center around 15th century nuns in a remote mountain convent in Spain.  Before long, the sisters turned out of be heretic feminists, which really made me cringe, but since this was a book club book, I kept going.

That’s when things started getting really interesting.  Flash forward to the 20th century.  A young girl washes up on a beach following an earthquake in Latin America, naked, wearing only an ancient medal on a chain, wrapped around her neck.  She is brought to a nearby convent, where the nuns care for her until she is adopted by an American couple.

Amazingly, the story brings the girl and the history of those nuns together, in a compelling narrative that reminded me of The DaVinci Code.

It was great fun, and although predictable at times, I enjoyed it very much.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2013
402 pages

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Prince Of Darkness by Sharon Kay Penman

Prince Of Darkness

I did it!  I finally finished the fourth (and so far, final) book in Penman’s Justin de Quincy series.  I don’t know how she does it.   Every book in the series has a creative, new mystery that features another facet of the story of Richard Lionheart and his rival/brother John.

In this book, Justin de Quincy is called to France to help the very person he dislikes, the enemy of his King – John.  Surprisingly, de Quincy realizes that he should lend his assistance here, because the plot he is called to unearth would harm the king as well as his brother.

I love how Penman presents a well-researched work of historical fiction, wrapped around a fictional mystery.  She portrays characters that are charming and a narrative that is engrossing.

Now I just have to find time to squeeze in Ransom, the sequel to Penman’s wonderful work about King Richard.

4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 2006
336 pages

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